Monday, May 07, 2007

Teaching Children Responsibility: The Homework Battle

Homework and ResponsibilityNorthern Lights School is known for generous amounts of homework. My children have always attended there so they know nothing else--know nothing of life on the outside--but it's a given that every afternoon they will have homework. As inevitable as death and dishes.

In order to survive raising three--soon to be four--children in the public school system I've developed a firm and simple policy when it comes to homework: Do it yourself.

When Grace was in first grade and started bringing home real homework--not the cut and paste fun she had in kindergarten--I started to notice a pattern. She would no sooner complete a page of sums than she would bring it to me to check it over. This wasn't a big deal, I could glance over it and quickly see if there were errors but when she moved into adding double-digits it started taking longer. I couldn't glance at the figures, I had to actually add things in my head, carrying tens and dropping zeros, to give an accurate assessment.

I'm not sure where it happened, but at some point I had an epiphany--probably when she wanted me to check her spelling list while I was simultaneously cooking dinner, changing a diaper, talking on the phone and emptying the dishwasher. I handed it back and said, "No, Dear, I'm sorry but I'm not going to check over your homework anymore."

Her eyes grew wide and she got a bit of a twitch to her eye and she started to explain how her world was doomed by this presentment: How would she know if she got something wrong? How would she know if she got something right? How would she explain the situation to her teacher? How would she live to adulthood if I refused to help her? I'd condemned her to a life on the streets.

But I was firm, no more spellcheck, no more going over sums, no more helping to study for a test, no more "seeing if something was right." It was the most liberating thing I'd done since potty training. Of course in her eyes I'd pushed her out of the boat and told her to swim to shore and there were tears and begging and bargaining before she realized that I was indeed serious and that I would no longer be her academic crutch.

It took some time to get her weaned--sometimes she'd forget and ask me how to spell a word and sometimes she didn't forget but hoped I had and would sneak a paper in for my perusal, but I stood strong. When the other kids began school I started from that same point and let them know that from the beginning they were to do their own work. If they needed help understanding something or if they needed clarification I would be happy to assist. If they had a completed essay and wanted my opinion on it, I'd be happy to give it, but doing their homework would be their own responsibility. I would not remind them to do it, nor would I ask them if they had completed it, the expectation was that they would be responsible for remembering which assignments needed completing, bringing home the appropriate study guides, and finishing the work on time with accuracy and neatness.

This may sound harsh but it was the only way for them to learn academic responsibility. I often sit through Back to School nights at the beginning of the school year where teachers list the weekly assignments only to look around and see parents taking notes. Is it the parents' job to remember that every Thursday night Johnny has to study for a Friday spelling test? As soon as parents become their child's personal secretaries that child will gladly surrender responsibility for accomplishing their tasks. It's human nature--who among us wouldn't gladly let someone else take care of an unpleasant task if that person is willing to take it from us?

Grace, at one point frustrated with a particular subject, accused me of not caring if she got good grades because I wouldn't help her study for a test. Even her teacher had instructed her to have her parents quiz her on the material. I assured her that I cared very much, that getting good grades and a thorough education were of paramount importance but that she would have to do it the same way I did it.

I pulled out a stack of index cards and showed her how she could make flashcards of the material she needed to study, telling her that not only would that work just as well but it would work better because she would be the one deciding which information was worthy of study and then writing it on the cards, solidifying it in her memory as she did so. I further explained that though I wasn't monitoring her homework that the expectation was that she would do her best and that if she failed to turn in assignments, had incomplete or sloppy work and her grades fell that there would be consequences. Bad consequences.

It hasn't been smooth sailing--both Spencer and Grace's fourth grade year nearly killed me--but I never have to remind them to do their homework. They come home from school, get their snack, take a short break then hit the books. In general missed assignments are non-existent. The children don't always get straight As, but they have developed terrific study habits that will serve them well in high school and beyond.

They've got to learn self-reliance sometime, I'm not going to be there on the dorm floor when they need help in college, and better for them to learn it now when the grades are relatively unimportant. If I stand back and let them learn--perhaps fail at first--they'll be on their way to learning responsibility which is a more valuable lesson than anything they could learn from a textbook.


This is part one of a series I'll be doing on teaching children responsibility and I welcome any comments you may have on the subject. I've used my custom search engine to find other posts on the topic:

* Hamelife with Parents-If You Want Your Children to Learn Responsibility Ditch the Daily Chores

* Sprittibee with Helping Kids Understand Time and Responsibility

* GNM Parents with Teach Your Kids to Work Part III

* Three Sons and a Princess with Is Homework Bad for Kids?

* A homework tip from Parent Hacks

* Postcards from the Mothership with The Homework Debate

* Solving Homework Dilemmas at Today's Teacher


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my4kids said...

Scribbit I agree with you. I do the same thing with my kids although Izzak does need a little more help since he can't usually understand the directions or things like math stories. But in general it is up to them to get it done and do it as well as they can. After all if we check over everything for them are they really learning? Since we fix it for them. The only difference I have is right now with both Joshua and Izzak their teachers email me weekly progress reports but more of that is behavior then homework and the only part about homework is to let me know they are doing it or not.

dcrmom said...

Excellent post. Thank you for this encouragement!

Char said...

I am right there with you on this one! My kids are responsible for their grades and their homework. I rarely get involved in their school assignments and they are certainly better for it.

Heather said...

Our school has something called a M.O.O.S.E. notebook (Management Of Organizational Skills Everyday). The kids have an assignment book and folders (that vary by grade and teacher). The teacher initials the assignment book each day and parents are to initial it each night. It is a pain.
I am with you on the do it yourself policy. My son is in 3rd grade and he is pretty self-sufficient and gets excellent grades. He actually gets most of his work done at school, too.
I am thankful that so far, our school hasn't given out much homework other than a lot of reading, but I know it's coming.
Love the "death and dishes" line!

G's Cottage said...

Definitely support your stand. Our youngest graduated from university yesterday. He wrote last week that everybody he knew was living at the library and he felt bad he wasn't there with them. (He carried 22 credits and wrote a weekly column.) Then he wrote that he had successfully defended his capstone project and it was actually fun. When I asked why he said it was because he knew he was nailing every point. Get it-He Knew-he didn't have to ask anybody else. I will bet you are unpopular with other parents who seem to relish the "martyr" role and spend every school event in clusters whining over how much time they spend prodding their kids through school work.

Lisa Milton said...

Excellent post. I shudder to think what these poor kids will be doing in college without being coddled. It's not a gift to do everything for them.

I remember the first time Lexi forgot her homework; I knew she would be crushed. But it only happened once. She got it.

Cheers to Scribbit for a job well done.

Schelle said...

I'm looking forward to more in this series ;)
PS. We're heading into Autumn here... I'm not looking forward to Winter, but it is nowhere near as severe as yours! Wombat will still find flowers to pick!!! I'll do some autumn leaf photos soon ;D

Alexandra said...

Interesting post. As a homeschooling mom I don't have any experience with this homework issue, but I do agree that instilling the value of independent learning is best. What a gift to be given the tools to learn independently!

And congratulations, I didn't know you were expecting...guess I should check over here more often! :)

Pieces said...

Interesting. I agree with you for the most part. I think that with individual children there needs to be a little lee-way. I have a son that needs some extra help staying organized. The difficulty is finding that balance between encouraging his independence and not letting it get so bad that he is crushed by defeat and failure.

I am one of the parents in the orientation night taking notes--not because I am going to remind my kids to study for their spelling test but because when I was a kid I would have been writing all of that down too! And I like to know what the teacher expects of me. I may not DO what they expect but at least I then know the context of the emails that come my way later in the year.

Jenn in Holland said...

Mmm-Hmmm. Another yes, yes comment for you scribbit. When in conversation with other parents, I often have felt that I am the only one who has taken this stance with homework and children. Sometimes I have to admit I have even felt like maybe I was a slacker parent for not stepping in and supervising (read; doing for them)the homework and school projects. But I know my kids are better prepared for it, and better off. And darn it, they do a good job staying organized and on top of it. I am grateful to know that there are others out there on my team!

Loralee Choate said...

I love your stance. It is mine. Or, it WOULD be if I was allowed. The school I am in is VERY challenging and parents have to freaking sign EVERY PIECE of homework. Their math comes home with a parent correction page (Where someone checks and if it is wrong, they have to redo the problem). There are also homework logs to be signed as well. I HATE IT. I AM NOT THE ONE IN SCHOOL!!!!!

Sorry, had to get that out.

mrtl said...

This flies in the face of conventional thinking, and of everything I learned about getting parents involved when I taught. Too bad it makes sense.

There is, of course, a difference between parents who don't monitor because they don't care and parents who don't monitor because they've given the child ownership. Part of the latter is helping the child identify tools (e.g., organization, note cards) and providing an atmosphere conducive to continued learning outside the schoolhouse.

As a teacher I rarely had the opportunity to meet with parents of successful students. Thank you for this guidance!

marina said...

hi, sorry for not responding. but life has been too hectic and now i'm hoping it's finally come to a halt and i can go back to my own stuff. i totally missed blogging and after my mother in law leaves this week, i'm going to be back full force.
thanks again for checking on me.
ciao for now

Leslie said...

Julia is not yet school age, so homework isn't something I've thought much about. When I was a child, I was pretty much on my own when it came to homework. It was always something that was up to me to do and I did it. Of course, I was nerd. I liked school and homework.

Cagey said...

Although my precious progeny is only 18 months, I've thought about this a bit. It's a new area for me because I just don't remember having homework at all until high school.

I love, LOVE your approach and am mentally bookmarking it for future reference.

P.S. I would love to see a piece on fiscal responsibility. It floors me that in the 5+ years as a homeowner, I've only had two kids come to ask if they could mow my lawn or shovel my driveway. TWO. Don't kids need money anymore?

J Fife said...

Good for you! My parents had the same homework policy for me. I'm so thankful that they did. The gift of responsibility is priceless. Now, I just have to remember to pass it on to my daughter.

An Ordinary Mom said...

I like MRLT's comment: "There is, of course, a difference between parents who don't monitor because they don't care and parents who don't monitor because they've given the child ownership. Part of the latter is helping the child identify tools (e.g., organization, note cards) and providing an atmosphere conducive to continued learning outside the schoolhouse."

I enjoy teaching my children how to study on their own. Studying and finding answers to questions is not an innate art, but a learned art.

Melissa R. Garrett said...

Every Monday, Hannah receives a packet of homework which must be returned on Friday. And for the most part, she does everything herself with little help from me. I still have to remind her to actually get started (or else it won't get done at all), but I don't have to stand over her shoulder with each page and problem. Hannah's the type that has to be thrown in the deep end or else she just assumes that whatever it is is too hard for her to accomplish. I think it's most difficult for me, though, to take a hands-off approach considering I was a 4.0 GPA student ~ very anal and very "in control." Hannah's more like her dad ;-)

PS - She LOVED that salad! I asked if any of her friends commented about it ~ nope!

AuburnGalAlways said...

My older child, Stinkerbell is finishing kindergarten this month. She is an intelligent child and is reading well already. I have helped her with her cut and paste homework this year and enjoyed it.

Your perspective is new to me. It makes perfect sense. Like you and the other commenters here, I want to raise an independent, responsible child. This seems to be a good technique to encourage that.

Megan said...

OMG, Scribbit! This is such good stuff! We are still years away from the homework thing, but I can totally see myself falling into the "Here, let me check that for you" trap. Thank you for this and I SO look forward to more!

Bec said...

To School or Not to School

“School is stupid!” The outburst had erupted from my daughter in Year 7. “What’s the point of it anyway? “Why do we have to have this stupidness? You are just learning all this stuff you will never use in life.”

The ‘stupidness’ of school is the ongoing debate in our home at present.

Point to consider. Ok how much do you use from your years of general schooling?

Apart from learning to read and write and do sums? I was rattling my brain to come up with a decent answer, as I am a strong believer in education. Coming from a family history of journalists, I was automatically editing my daughter’s statement of outburst - correct grammar, spelling and punctuation are vital, that’s for sure. “Stupidness” though grammatically incorrect, does in fact have a certain descriptive impact, that it should be considered perhaps, to be entered into the dictionary.

But reflecting on her statement, maybe she does have a point. Rheams and rheams of information, week upon week, month upon month, year upon year, your head buried in books hours on end, cramming your brain with so much information that there is no room for imagination.

I love finding out details about people and their lives. I love discovering new things about the world around me. I wonder at the intricate detail of the different markings of fish, birds, and insects, even amphibians and reptiles (as long as I don't have to touch one :-)). I love to read, it is a means of escapism for me at times, yet I wouldn’t read an encyclopedia or dictionary front to back like a book, though I have known some, such as my own brother, who have done just that. If they enjoy doing it, it’s fine by me. That’s the whole point here - Love, enjoyment.

Learning about the world, people and life around you should be enjoyed. Cramming information should be a choice not compulsory. Children need room for imagination.

“You’re daydreaming again!” Sound familiar?

Have you ever watched a baby sit, crawl, stand, and walk? The sheer excitement of parents and the wonder of achievement on the little one’s face, that’s how it should be with everything in our life. Learning should be natural, enjoyable, a part of the life around us, instead of your head buried so far in information that you might as well be an ostrich!

As parents, we are automatically teaching our children about the life around us. Making beds, cleaning house, cooking, baking, mending, repairing, taking care of equipment, and animals. Have you ever thought of all the maths, reading, writing, science and social studies that is required for those everyday things? Who needs a bunch of ink on paper for that! A toddler can’t read an instruction manual, yet he knows how to operate the DVD player or the TV, or how to change over to satellite or cable.

Look around you, what do you see? Can you see the trees, the birds, the flowers, the children playing in the yard or the parks? Or, do you have to shut your eyes from the 4 walls, a computer and desk, and pile of papers that need to be completed by 5pm this evening, take a deep breath, and enter a daydream to see the beauty of the world around you? How can you dream if you have never seen it?

Children need to dream, to imagine, and to live reality. Yes, I said it correctly, reality. If reality is being buried in a pile of paperwork, deadlines, meetings, phone calls, stress, insomnia, have we not created a prison around us? We might as well be planning our funeral! To me, reality is seeing God’s creation, and in it we can see the Creator Himself. That’s what is real, that’s what is alive. Show me a rainbow any day, and colour my world.

´Look what I drew, Mum’ I smile………………

Copyright 2006. Rebecca Laklem.

Rory said...

This is great stuff, Michelle. Homework being the responsibility of the children themselves does take a bit of an epiphany moment. You give some helpful suggestions here through your experience.

I do have a question - which I asked over at hamelife, but this affords a good opportunity: I further explained that though I wasn't monitoring her homework that the expectation was that she would do her best and that if she failed to turn in assignments, had incomplete or sloppy work and her grades fell that there would be consequences. Bad consequences.

Can you elaborate on this?

Heffalump said...

I am glad that you have found a system that works for you and for your kids. I am glad that the people who have commented on this post find this system good for them and support you in your use of it.
I thought about just not commenting on this post because it made me feel like I was somewhat of a bad parent for having to remind my kids to do their work. Then I thought about it for a while. Not every kid is the same. I have five boys, two of whom have high functioning Autism. Only three of my kids are in school until this fall when #4 starts Kindergarten. #2 son does his homework. He is one of our "normal" kids as people say. #1 and #3 have to really be pushed to do their homework. I don't do it for them, and I don't check over it other than to make sure they actually finished it, but they will not do their work if I don't remind them, and give them consequences for not getting it done. The school's consequences are not enough to motivate them. Am I a bad parent because your system doesn't work for some of my kids? No. And I have read your posts for long enough that I don't think you intended for parents that use another system to feel bad. I would love it if all of my kids came home and just did their work like #2 does. But for me, the fact is that when I wasn't reminding them every day, they just didn't do the work, and that makes for bad work habits when they get older. So I remind them. They earn their computer time by doing their homework, and I am evilly going to give them homework on the weekdays over the summer to earn their computer time, just to keep the routine up. Some kids don't want to swim to shore, they just want to go where the current takes them. Sometimes they need that encouragement to make the shore look worth their effort.

mcewen said...

So duct taping the child to the chair wouldn't be one of your recommendations?

scribbit said...

What wonderful comments, I love hearing from all of you and your mounds of experience.

Let me see about responding . . .

Alexandra--NO! Not expecting. But I can see where you might have got that idea. No, I meant Lillian was starting kindergarten this fall. :)

Pieces--I agree with you that there is a balance. And as another commenter put it, there's a big difference between giving your child responsibility and not caring. Big difference.

Also, I'd want to point out (because I didn't make this point and I should have) that if I had a child with special needs that my feelings/rules would probably change. Some children can also handle more responsibility than others. For some reason Grace is amazing that way and she'll handle things without me even having to think about it. Others not so much.

Cagey--I was planning on the next installment being about money and allowances. For what my opinion is worth :)

Rory--as for consequences I didn't get into this much because it was a bit tangential but I've found that the secret to parenting is to find what they most like and then use it as leverage. Do they love their tv time? Their best friend? Their books? Whatever they love if they don't get their responsibilities done then I take the fun stuff away.

Works well when it comes to fighting. Rule is: if you can't get along with your brother or sister then I can't unleash you on the world and you're grounded from being with friends. It's worked well. Zero tolerance for cruelty or fighting.

The funny thing is, Spencer was having trouble for a while in 2nd grade mostly because he was too into reading his sci-fi books instead of paying attention in class. I took all his books away and you'd thought I'd killed him. He shaped right up to get his books back and I wondered how the teacher would respond when she heard I'd taken away the books but she was very supportive. Mostly because she was glad I was willing to correct his behavior rather than leaving her to deal with it.

And finally, thanks for offering another perspective Heffalump, I appreciate you being willing to point out things I've missed (and I miss plenty) :)

I like the way you used my own metaphor to prove your point :) Excellent! And I'm glad you've found a way to work through things that works for you.

Anjali said...

Great post. Hope I can do the same thing in a couple of years.

Jenny McB said...

I can comment on this post from three different angles, as a parent of two different types of kids and a former teacher.

My job was a 9-10th grade Sped teacher who also ended up with kids who were failing. Some had learning disabilities, but most just wouldn't do the work. I would teach study skills and organization and some would sink in, but then for others, the kids were just lazy. Frustrating...but now with my own slacker 10th grader, I have backed off and let him choose his road. He wants no help, resents reminders and it's his transcript that won't get him into college. Is it hard to sit back? Sure it is, but I can't have the battles at home over his work.

That said, I have two other sons who work for their grades. The only homework I will help them with are the "stupid" assignments, the staining of the paper for Lewis and Clark journal.

My biggest complaints about homework, is the unclear directions that the kids are given by teachers and some teachers expect parents to help with homework. These are the same Teachers who don't have kids in school yet.
Good post.

Katherine said...

I'm trying to be hands off on homework. Sometimes I succeed better than others. Mostly I tell my boys, ages 8 and 11, when its time to start homework (4pm generally) and then I'm done with it.
I told my older one 2 years ago that he had to study the spelling and had to do well (I expect at least an 80) or there would be consequences - I would help if asked, but I would not make him study. It eased the tension greatly. I do still quiz my younger one on his spelling words on Thursday, but he reminds/asks me to do it (and spelling is one where I always found it hard to quiz myself).
I'm always amazed at my friends who know what all the kids are studying in class - because they are reading/reviewing/helping with homework/tests. I generally don't know until the tests come home or if it figures into dinner conversation.
I need to work more on getting projects to be completely theirs.
I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts on money management.

la bellina mammina said...

Thanks for this. I encouraged my kids to do their own homework but I go through with them when they're done. I'm gonna try doing it your way as I'm having difficulties with the second one who always "forgets" that he has homework to do, etc. maybe this tactic will help - tough love.

Momish said...

This is a great approach! In a way, I grew up with this since my parents were both working and busy just keeping things going. I have seen many other kids my age walk into high school and even college without the inner resources to make it on their own. I fully agree with the stance you took and know from experience it works to their advantage. Like you said, better to fail in the beginning when the stakes are not that high.

kailani said...

I'm not sure I could help with my daughter's homework even if I wanted to. Their homework seems so much more advanced than I remember it being before.

Rory said...

I don't see it as tangential at all. Discussing "consequences" has everything to do with a child's learning responsibility.

Surely the consequences of turning in assignments, having incomplete or sloppy work and grades falling are those that are felt at school. That is the way responsibility is learned, rather than threats of punishment at home. The consequences you suggest are arbitrary, they bear no relation to the error.

scribbit said...

Not so. The definition of arbitrary is "without reason, capricious" my choice of punishments are neither.

I'm afraid with many children, mine included, the consequence of having good grades--and I'm afraid this is particularly true of boys nowadays--is irrelevant to them. What do they care if they get good grades? They do, however, care about seeing their buddy on Saturday afternoon at the playground.

Once I've established that if they exercise proper responsibility by getting good grades and having good study habits they can be allowed to enjoy privileges reserved for those who are responsible--such as having t.v. time--I've made my point.

You can't reason with very young children and deal in abstractions the way you can with an older child or an adult.

Anonymous said...

As a mother of 4, I read this post and it got on my nerves.
I was not going to comment yesterday. But after reading all of the comments thought I would add my 2 cents. Need more balance in reviews.
My oldest children attended Northern Lights ABC School for 4 years. (Now we home school)
My daughter did great, fine etc. My son on the other hand needed extra help.
I can recall one night when it took 2 hours to teach him how to spell top and 9 other easy words like that. We used full body movement to help get it to "stick".
Had I told him it's yours to do and yours alone he would have shut down and quit on me. Not all children are alike. This needs to be noted. Your ways may work for you. But not all kids can hack your approach.
I strongly believe in teaching responsibility. With that also comes respect. I think you must like to read all the feedbacks of you get. It shows people are paying attention to your work.
Well, that's what I think kids are asking for when they say they want help. I did that growing up. I did not really need help. I just wanted my hard work to be noted. "LOOK WHAT I DID".
Kids don't have posted comments from all over the world. As parents lets not get too tied up with the dishes, dinner and talking on the phone. Give them a high five, great job.
Congrats on your responsible children. May they prosper and grow in all areas, not just homework

Lisa said...

I am happy to see this post -- We'll have homework (and the battles that come with it) to do soon enough.

chelle said...

I am so not there yet, however I always *thought* that I would help my kids, since no one was around to help me. After reading through your post, I realize I have a lot more to think about besides my own childhood insecurities *before* my kids reach school age. Thanks for the thought provoking post!

Rory said...

Who decides that meeting with friends or watching TV are the privileges of the responsible?

Are there no consequences from the school for sloppy homework or poor grades? Would they not get "chewed out" by the teacher? Find themselves with a letter home?

These seem like pretty severe consequences to me. The child gets to experience the genuine cause and effect of their actions.

scribbit said...

I'm sorry Rory but that's just not been my experience in the fourteen years I've been at this. Children are wonderful but they don't absorb values by osmosis, by parents sitting back and assuming that children will catch the vision.

If I tried to explain to my 8 year old that he needed good grades to get into a good college and get a good job in order to support himself and his family someday he'd shrug his shoulders and happily go about his business. I the teacher expresses disapproval of his work that's only of minimal interest to him. But if I tell him that he can't play with Derek if his homework isn't done properly he'll listen. We do things in life for all different kinds of motivations, and young children don't find the lure of Harvard motivation.

Some kids can get the "I'm disappointed in you" talk for poor academics and have it work, that may be a suitable consequence for some (like my oldest) but not for every child.

And as for who decides what the consequences are--I do! I'm the parent here, that's my job, to make tough calls like that. It doesn't mean I'm right every time but I'm pretty sure I'll have better success-to-failure ratio than if I leave the parenting up to my children.

My teenager has grown enough to be able to talk with, reason with and discuss things in a rational way that allows her to make many of her own choices now. But I wouldn't have expected that kind of maturity from her at six.

I'm teaching them to make their own decisions, but responsibility is not something that children are born with, it must be taught and taught in a way they can understand.

scribbit said...

Oh, and anonymous, thank you for your comment. Not everyone has to agree, I'm fine with hear a dissenting viewpoint.

I'm not sure I understood all that you were trying to say, and if you read previous comments it was brought up several times that if a child has special needs that their situation could be different.

Perhaps your irritation results from feeling that this post is critical of the way that you approach things? It's not, if you've found a way to get your kids to do homework that works for you and for them, terrific. Keep up the good work.

My main purpose in writing was to say that if you are having trouble getting your children to do their homework--assuming there isn't a biological reason your child is having trouble--that giving them more room to be responsible has worked for me and should be considered. When a parent takes too much control over an unpleasant task the child will gladly give up responsibility for the task.

Alexandra said...

Oh my gosh, boy did I read that wrong! LOL, okay sorry to start rumors on the web about another little one! ;) Late night reading gone awry.